OSHA: Complying With Workplace Health and Safety Laws

Learn about OSHA, the federal law that requires employers to provide safe working conditions.

By , Attorney

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, also called OSHA, requires employers to provide a safe working environment for employees. Many states also have their own workplace safety law. In order to comply with OSHA, employers must learn their obligations -- and find out whether they must follow federal or state law.

Which Law Do I Follow -- Federal or State?

When OSHA was passed, it preempted all state occupational safety and health laws. Each state then had the option of submitting a plan to the Secretary of Labor for approval. If the secretary found the plan acceptable, then the state's law was allowed to stand. In these states, called "state plan states," employers must follow the state's laws, regulations, and standards on workplace health and safety, not the federal OSHA.

The state plan states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.

(Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York also have workplace safety laws, but they cover state and local government employees only. Private employers must still follow the federal law.)

If your business operates in one of the state plan states listed above, you can find information about your state's laws and resources on the U.S. Department of Labor's website, at www.osha.gov (look for State Occupational Safety and Health Plans).

If your business does not operate in one of the states listed above, then you must follow the federal OSHA, as described below.

OSHA Covers Just About Everyone In Your Workplace

You must follow OSHA's rules for every worker in your business, regardless of the worker's title, status, or classification. This means that the law covers managers, supervisors, partners, stockholders, officers, and family members who work for you as well as rank-and-file employees.

The law does not, however, cover independent contractors or family members of a farm operator.

General Safety Rules For All Businesses

OSHA requires covered employers to maintain a workplace that is free of hazards that they know or should know about, and that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical injury. These are called "recognized hazards."

Hazards can be unsafe conditions (for example, toxic fumes or broken equipment) or unsafe practices (for example, push starting tractors or operating circular saws with one hand instead of both hands). If you can easily detect a hazard by walking through your workplace and using your senses (for example, you can see or smell the hazard), then you must get rid of it. You must also use reasonable means to look for and eliminate hazards.

Your duty to provide a safe working environment extends beyond the four walls of your building. Wherever you send people to do work must be safe, even if the work takes place elsewhere (such as at a construction or demolition site).

OSHA requires you to provide tools and equipment that are in safe working condition. It also requires you to adequately train and supervise employees. And it requires you to provide specific safety equipment when necessary.

Special Safety Rules for Specific Industries

Although the general safety standards described above apply to everyone, some of OSHA's standards apply only to particular industries, such as construction, maritime and longshoring, or agriculture. These safety standards can be complicated. See "Where Can I Turn For Help," below, for information on finding assistance in figuring out which rules apply to you.

Other OSHA Requirements

Your obligations under OSHA don't stop with maintaining a safe work environment. You must also meet certain reporting requirements, posting requirements, and recordkeeping requirements, and you must submit to OSHA inspections. For example, you must report fatal accidents to OSHA within eight hours of their occurrence. You must post an OSHA poster informing workers of their rights and obligations under the law. You must also keep records of your efforts to comply with the law and to prevent injuries and illnesses. (For more information about these requirements, read Nolo's article OSHA Compliance: Recordkeeping, Reporting, Posting, and Inspection Rules.)

Worker Rights Under OSHA

OSHA gives employees certain rights to take action to ensure that their workplace is safe. For example, workers may file complaints with OSHA regarding unsafe working conditions or other OSHA violations, and you may not retaliate against them for doing so. Workers may also refuse to work when they face imminent danger in the workplace, and, once again, you may not retaliate against them for doing so. Indeed, it is very important that you, as the employer, do not attempt to suppress workers' OSHA rights in any way. Otherwise, you leave yourself vulnerable to fines, penalties, or worse.

Where Can I Turn For Help?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, also referred to as OSHA, is the agency that enforces OSHA, and it has a lot of great information on its website, at www.osha.gov. Of particular interest is its Compliance Assistance section. There, you will find fact sheets, booklets, Expert Advisors, eTools, and Safety and Health Topics pages.

For comprehensive information about OSHA, including how to comply with its provisions, get The Essential Guide to Federal Employment Laws, by Lisa Guerin and Sachi Barreiro (Nolo).

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